Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From the Hard Drive - The Medical Kit

I always think it’s interesting to see what is in the medical kit – it’s different for every country. You’ll have to go to my other blogs (you know you want to!) to see what was in those kits. It may be that the biggest difference is in the other items we’ve been issued – the water filter, the two space heaters, Yaktrax, and the fire extinguisher. In Morocco we had a bicycle and an allowance for those who needed space heaters. In the Philippines it was a life vest and I had to buy reverse-osmosis water on a regular basis. In all countries (though it is possible I never set mine up in the Philippines) PCVs get a CO/smoke detector.

According to the Health Manual, this is what is in the kit - antacid tablets, anti-fungal cream, antibiotic ointment, lip balm, eye drops (though not the ones I use; I brought enough to last until I go back for Reunions in May), two kinds of anti-itch cream (hydrocortisone and Calagel), antiseptic skin cleanser, sinus decongestant, antihistamine, oral rehydration salts, cough drops, iodine tablets (to disinfect water when filtering is unavailable), Tylenol, ibuprofen, and Pepto Bismol (I’m not sure how that differs from antacid).

Our kits were cobbled together (Washington, D.C. didn’t send kits for the PCRVs – tsk, tsk!) so what is actually in mine is a little different. Things listed above that I have – the lip balm, rehydration salts (two different kinds!), antibiotic cream (not ointment, but that’s okay), antiseptic skin cleanser (different from the one mentioned in the manual, but also okay), ibuprofen, Tylenol, antacid, two kinds of throat lozenges, Benadryl, anti-fungal cream, only one kind of anti-itch cream (the hydrocortisone). So – no eye drops, but they’re the wrong kind anyway. No decongestant, but I can always request some; there are plenty of pharmacies here, too. No iodine tablets, but I’m not going to go on multi-day camping trips; I buy bottled water whenever I go out, since the reusable bottle I brought with me doesn’t last me all day. No Pepto-Bismol, but I haven’t needed it yet, in any country.

Things in the kit that I have had in medical kits before (and therefore make me suspect that the Health Manual list has only highlights, not a complete list) – a whistle, sterile pads, bandaids, adhesive tape, scissors, tweezers, latex gloves, an Ace bandage, a pocket First Aid manual (actually, two), and the Peace Corps favorite – a generous supply of condoms. Maybe the Health Manual lists only those items that need instruction on when to use. Things new to me here – hand sanitizer (nice!), an instant cold compress, anti-diarrheal tablets (surprised at those – in Morocco they wanted things to run their course, pun intended). Tampons are also available on request (first country for that!), but I still have my Keeper. I know this is information you wanted to know!

The Health Handbook says that PCVs here get the following vaccinations upon arrival (I received only one when I got here, and had a couple before I left, so I guess everything else is current, plus I received some in my other countries that aren’t needed here) – Inactivated Polio, MMR, Tetanus/Diphtheria, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Influenza, Swine Flu. I’d like to get my teeth cleaned while I am here, and I can pay for it myself if I need to (as I did in the Philippines).

(I forgot to mention the cobbled-together kit when I gave feedback on orientation recently; I’ll have to think about mentioning that. So far I’ve used only the extra things I was given after my initial consultation – the calcium, eye vitamins, multivitamins, and dental floss. Well, that’s not exactly true – I’ve had headaches just about daily and am going through the supply of Excedrin Migraine that I brought with me at an alarming rate. I recently felt unwell and got a thermometer, which I ended up not using, and Vitamin C fizzy tablets and a Russian version of Theraflu, if Theraflu is the thing you put in hot water when you feel something coming on; I ended up not using those either. The Medical Unit is supposed to supply sunblock – they’ve been out, so I had to buy some before my vacation and get reimbursed. I see in the manual that insect repellent is available – I guess I’ll need some when it gets warmer. Haven’t seen bugs yet; what a change from the Philippines! In Morocco we could get Lubriderm and Vaseline from the Medical Unit too – not so here, since they are readily available in stores. I’ve now been through the Volunteer Handbook, the Safety and Security Manual, and the Health Manual – that just leaves the language books, one of which I can’t use without knowing the entire alphabet, and the Cookbook.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

From the Hard Drive - Some Impressions

Yerevan is a beautiful city, with the pink stone. There was one architect in the ‘20s who designed the street plan and most of the beautiful buildings; they’re at a human scale and have nice details. The Soviet apartment blocks behind are also somewhat nice, since they too are of the pink stone. The streets are wide, the sidewalks have designs in the pavement. There are trash cans, and there’s no trash. The air is breathable (other than the cigarette smoke) and there are construction cranes everywhere. Yerevan is a relatively new city; in greater Armenia, Tbilisi was the cultural center.

Nick, the PTO, is an American married to an Armenian, and he told us that people are moving on from the genocide. Maybe it’s a generational thing – the Volunteer Support Coordinator, an Armenian, told us that the genocide is very much on people’s minds and that there isn’t a single family in Armenia who wasn’t affected. My host sister is 65, and almost the first thing she told me is that her parents were both genocide survivors. They were orphaned at age 12 and made their way to Russia, where they met. Her father was a chemical engineer, and in 1944 he spent a year in the United States working for duPont. Her sister was born in Russia, and then they moved to Armenia and she was born here. She was a computer scientist, but quit her job to take care of her father at the end of his life and then the sister at the end of hers. Her mother was a homemaker and since the girls were both working, her mother did all the cooking. She didn’t really learn to cook until her sister died. She learned English by listening to the Voice of America; her father told her to listen until she understood. When I ask her what something is in Armenian (identifying the food and household items, for example), she tells me the Russian word first and has to think of the Armenian; she has a Russian-English dictionary for when she is trying to think of a word to tell me. Yet she writes in Armenian.

The apartment is comfortable, if a little chilly (ironically, the day I moved in, there was an article in the Times about central heating making us fat, and how you can lose a few pounds by shivering). She has a thermometer in the foyer and it seems to be 60 degrees in here. I have on a few layers, but in Morocco I could see my breath! If it gets colder, I do have those two space heaters that Peace Corps gave me, but for now, one is my towel rack and the other is still in its box (they’re two different kinds). My room has two beds, one made up for winter and one for summer. The winter one has a wool-stuffed duvet for me to sleep on and one for me to sleep under – a wool-blanket sandwich! It’s warm and comfortable (in our culture session, Armine told us not to put shoes on the bed, and I said, “or crumbs.” Brian said, “I remember you and the crumbs.” I haven’t seen him in two years… is my aversion to crumbs that memorable?). There’s a dresser with some space for hanging things and a shelf for my toiletries. My room also has two covered trunks, on which I have put my luggage (kind of an auxiliary dresser), a round table with four chairs (wood, not plastic as I had in Morocco!) and a little round table for the filtered-water dispenser. There’s no rug on the floor, but I have toasty slippers thanks to Elisa, and I have room between the two beds to do my yoga.

There’s a room with a Western toilet (I’ve seen a couple of squat toilets, but they are of the European variety – i.e. bowl, just no seat, as opposed to hole in the ground), with paper, that flushes (I don’t take any of this for granted). There’s a separate room with a sink and a shower stall. Zina has to turn about seven different valves to get the shower water running, but there is hot water, and she was told to expect me to take a shower every day. And so I shall! I’m so, so glad there is hot water. There isn’t in the sink, but I can wash my face quickly with cold water. There’s a living room and her room and a small kitchen and two balconies, which in this season she is using for food storage. It’s very comfortable! Because of the shower/curtain configuration, when I am done the floor is wet, but she insists on cleaning up after me, and also on doing the dishes after we eat. I’ve been offering to help, but she says she is used to taking care of people. If she wants to do that, it’s fine with me! Zina often has the radio on, with a variety of music – Armenian, Russian, American, European – playing; it’s a nice change for me from the same music that’s been on my computer since 2006! At night she watches TV; it’s pleasant background. I’ve been here in my room writing and reading and meditating and doing yoga, but I’ll take breaks and visit with her. It’s about as good as it could get if one has to live with a complete stranger in a different culture.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

From the Hard Drive - A Three-Day Weekend

Our first Friday here was Army Day, a national holiday. It was great to be able to sleep late and not to have to get into the mindset of going right to work. I think that all Peace Corps Response orientations should precede three-day weekends! Or at least weekends.

We four PCRVs had arranged to meet at the Cascade, a huge flight of stone steps in an elegant part of town. There’s some construction still to be done at the top, but other than that it’s in great shape – things here look old but they’re not crumbling. Central Yerevan has some straight streets on a grid, some diagonals that cut across, and some curved streets on the outside. I missed the turn onto the diagonal and went way out of my way on one of the curved streets! So I missed the homestay comparisons and everyone had to repeat their stories. We found a nice café, the Retro (pictures of the Beatles, Bee Gees and more on the walls), which has great lentil soup; my work will also be in this location so I see lots of lentil soup lunches to come! It was a beautiful, partly sunny day, so we climbed the steps. From the top you can see Mt. Ararat, which looms over the city. It’s in Turkey (though people here will say it’s in Western Armenia), but it looks very close. I’ll get there on a clear day and photograph it. Interesting to think about Noah landing there – this really is an ancient place.

Tim said that when he moved here he thought about climbing the Cascade every day, and he’s done it maybe six times in ten years. I’m going to try to climb it more often than not, and I look forward to the day when my legs don’t shake on the way down! We then went to another café that I had passed on the way over – the Marrakesh café. Small world… lots of teas and coffees (though nothing really Moroccan other than the name). That evening, my host sister prepared delicious chicken and fries; as a welcome she’s cooking dinner for me for three nights, and then we’ll see what happens – I can pay her and she can cook for me (which is tempting), or I may start eating simple things such as apples and cheese – maybe as I get more comfortable I will cook, but so far I don’t feel inspired to.

Our first Saturday it was rainy in the morning, though by the time I went out, the rain had tapered off. Still, it was nice that we had done our walking the day before and had indoor plans for this day. Brian and I met at Marrakesh for coffee, and then we joined the others and a couple of the Peace Corps staff at the National Gallery. Peace Corps paid for the tickets and a guide – that was nice! The museum has many paintings from the Hermitage, though we’ll have to go back to see the European paintings (and apparently many more are in storage than on display). We saw the Armenian art, which was very good. There were some vivid portraits and some stunning landscapes; my favorites were the marine pictures, with reflections of the sun or moon on stormy water. There were some more modern paintings too, but nothing Soviet or contemporary. There were also three big rooms full of reproductions of frescoes from churches around the country – it was what I expected Armenian art to be (I wish I could have taken pictures so that I could share them!). We found a café for lunch and then walked around a bit, finding the hostel where the PCVs usually stay when they are in Yerevan. We met up with a PCV who we’d met in the office earlier in the week and had a light dinner with her at the first non-smoking place we’ve yet seen – the food was good, but I’d go back even if it were just okay, to be in a non-smoking place!

(And that Sunday I had planned to go to another museum, but then I slipped and fell on my computer. So after a coffee at the Retro – which has since proved too smoky for more than take-out lentil soup - I went to the Peace Corps office to go through some email. I am still catching up! To think that I didn’t bring a laptop to Morocco and somehow made it from September until Thanksgiving without one!)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From the Hard Drive - Swear-in, Language and Culture (oh my!)

I, (state your name), do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, domestic and foreign, that I take this obligation freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps by working with the people of (the host country) as partners in friendship and peace.

With those words, on Thursday morning (moved up from the afternoon because of our field trip), we were sworn in as Armenia’s first group of Peace Corps Response volunteers. I’ve taken that oath three times now and it always seems a little more Corps than Peace to me, but it’s also a moment of pride, as I make a commitment to represent the people of the United States and to help the people of Armenia. David Lillie gave a wonderful and moving speech (though, as in the Philippines, touched with the irony of the short amount of training we experienced leading up to that moment). The staff had dressed up for it and acted appropriately happy for us. We received pins with the Peace Corps logo, the Armenian flag and the American flag, and had some refreshments and handshakes and hugs.

The Armenian flag has horizontal stripes of red, blue and orange – I asked the AO what it stood for and she said she had been told the pink tuf stone, the sky (or Lake Sevan) and the apricots. I later had the chance to ask the Language Coordinator and she said the red was for the land, the passion of the people and the blood that was spilled, the blue was the sky and the orange was the sun.

Before getting sent off to our homestays we had a little language and culture on both Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. As I mentioned, we have a tutoring allowance, and my homestay host speaks English very well, so the language wasn’t as critical for me as it was for the others, but falling at the end of the day both days, we didn’t get a lot. Still, I find that what we did get I have been using, so it’s already a good base – hello and thank you and some other common words. Before coming here I had been under the impression that language, alphabet and religion were what united the people, but now I am not so sure about religion (people don’t seem to be as devout as I thought they’d be; part of that might be the comparison to the countries in which I’ve previously served, where religion was so central to the culture, and part of it might be a vestige of the Soviet era, where religion existed but was outlawed - more on this as I find out more). So it’s language and alphabet that define the culture – and here, the Peace Corps language training includes learning the alphabet. It’s a unique one. So is the language – it’s on its own branch of the Indo-European tree. The street signs are in Armenian and English, and many other signs are in Armenian and Cyrillic, so I might pick up some Russian while I’m here, but it will definitely be helpful to be able to read.

Off to our homestays we went – accompanied by a driver and a staff member (and a huge water filter system, two space heaters, a fire extinguisher, a carbon monoxide/smoke detector, the medical kit and all the handbooks, in addition to my luggage). My homestay is in an apartment building near the hotel where we stayed (for safety and security reasons I’ll not get more specific), in a wonderful central location. My homestay sister (she prefers that to mother) had dinner prepared for me – a beet salad (I asked her what it was called in Armenian and she said vinaigrette – oh well; I still want to learn to make it!), some dumplings (I don’t know what those are called either), baklava, and some of Armenia’s famous cognac (one glass, not multiple toasts). She showed me to my room and left me alone to unpack and organize – and then I went to bed and slept (not the entire time), reappearing twelve hours later and finally somewhat more awake!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

From the Hard Drive - Introduction to Work

We had lunch with the Program Managers and counterparts on Wednesday; this was a good chance to ask some initial questions and to hear some of our counterpart’s thinking. Tim seems very dynamic – Homeland Handicrafts is what it is entirely due to his vision and direction. Then we met separately with our Program Manager, Stepan. Gordon and Jeanne fall under the TEFL program and Brian and I fall under Community and Business Development. We read about the overall project framework and discussed our roles. We’d like to serve as consultants, both to Homeland Handicrafts and to any of the PCVs whose projects feed into Homeland Handicrafts – right now, all of the artisans that the NGO works with have been identified by PCVs, and the PCV serves as the local contact. Stepan is there to offer any support that we need, which is great. He has to clarify with Washington what our reporting system will be – I’m kind of hoping for the simple monthly/mid-service/final reporting of the Philippines and not the complicated reporting format that they were implementing in Morocco just as I left, but I’ll go with the flow. Our counterpart mentioned giving separate projects to Brian and me, albeit with overlap and collaboration, and I found that reassuring.

I’ll skip ahead chronologically for now to the next day, when we went on a field trip with our counterpart and his IT/translation person. This was an opportunity to see how they introduce the program to a new community. They advertise for a couple of weeks (the PCV in the site put up posters, and then there was word of mouth) to say they are coming and will review the work of any interested artisans. Tim does a presentation on seven principles of selling a successful product (such as make it small and packable) and then reviews the items that people have brought to see if they have any potential, based on his experience. The people who stay behind to ask questions and/or who appear more dynamic during the presentation are usually the ones he ends up working with. He gives them a couple of weeks to develop a product based on his principles and then comes back to the community. If the product idea is good, and the price seems reasonable based on his formula (he pays everyone the same hourly wage, plus materials, plus an extra percentage to be split between the artisan and the local partner NGO – Homeland Handicrafts takes nothing), then he will ask for a sample and/or agree to sell the product. Usually 20 or so people show up at the initial meeting and one or two when he returns. Brian and I took pictures and took notes – and already have lots of questions and ideas. It was a great opportunity, but it was an information overload on top of jet lag, and it meant that our survival language and culture lesson was cut short, so while I am glad I went, in a way I wish it had been this coming week instead. It’s all right, though, because unlike in the Philippines, we have a tutoring allowance here, and I intend to use it to learn some of the language!

One thing that was disconcerting was that as the meeting was breaking up and people were standing around, there was a woman with a daughter of about 12 or 13, and the daughter kept staring at me. In retrospect, if I had had some language I might have asked her name and made other small talk, but at the time I didn’t even think of that; I just felt uncomfortable. There were other women with light-colored hair in the room (not natural, but mine is enhanced as well), so I couldn’t understand why she was staring. I don’t think I look that different from the other people here – but I guess that I do. Later, Armine, the Language Coordinator, told me that of the four of us, I was likeliest to get unwanted attention. So if I come back to the U.S. with darker hair again, it’s because it’s a survival technique! Or maybe I will get used to it – it’s just been so long since I’ve been stared at that I’ve forgotten that aspect of being in the Peace Corps.

I started reading the Emergency Action Plan, and I realize that in the last post I failed to mention a few other potential dangers that were discussed in our session. I mentioned earthquake and petty crime, but there is also war (relations with Azerbaijan continue to simmer), civil unrest (there were violent protests after the 2008 election; the next election isn’t until 2013, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s happy), radiation leak (the nuclear plant is old and in a seismic zone; there’s been a rule that PCVs can’t be placed within 30 km – but Yerevan is within 30 km), and then mudslide, hailstorm and flood.

(I got some language from my tutor to try to describe what I wanted, but my hair is now lighter, not darker. I’ve been complimented on it, but I don’t like it! And it cost too much for me to redo it right away… so I’ll wait until next time and try to get it darker – or at least back to what my Chicago hairstylist wrote down! Also – since learning about the dangers here of earthquake and nuclear plant leak – and being here for a minor earthquake – both New Zealand and Japan have happened…).

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cathedral, Markets and Memorial

Jeanne had told me that the main shuka, or food market, was really something to see, and I met her at its Metro stop this morning. It was right across the street from Yerevan’s “new” (2001) cathedral, so we stopped there first. Surp Grigor Lusavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) Cathedral was built to celebrate 1700 years of Christianity in Armenia, and it has 1700 seats. The architecture is a modern take on the traditional (I think Professor Billington would approve of the geometric shapes, domes and arches), and there’s very little adornment inside. The nearby shuka had some interesting Armenian touches, such as stands of dried fruit, white cheese, and pickled everything. The regular fruit included some beautiful pomegranates (it is the symbol of Armenia but I had not seen any yet!), tiny bundles of greens (there really aren’t a lot of vegetables available right now – mostly root vegetables and a few leafy ones), and some of the Armenian sausage that I had tried in the restaurant in Los Angeles (someone had brought some to my host mother for her event last week and I’ve been enjoying it this week – it’s not bad!). There were spices, dried flowers and herbs for tea, beans and grains (meat and fish, too, but we stayed away from that part of the market). Clean, airy, picturesque.

We then went on to the Vernissage – I had the inspiration to buy for my nieces charms of their initials in the Armenian alphabet to put on a necklace; if anyone out there wants a letter let me know – they might be the ultimate packable gift! The letters are interesting and definitely Armenian – I may get a bunch for myself to make into earrings. I’d been wanting to go back to the Vernissage anyway – now that the March 6 and 7 craft fairs are over, I have a much better idea of what’s out there, and some of the artisanal items are growing on me. Later in the day, I went to the Painter’s Vernissage with Brian; I enjoy viewing the art there.

I spent the early afternoon at the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum; it will be crowded on April 24, Genocide Memorial Day, when everyone (and by that I may mean the entire population of Yerevan; we will see) comes to lay a flower at the eternal flame. I wanted to go when it was empty and quiet. The feeling of solitude begins with the walk across the bridge over the Hrazdan Gorge to get there. The museum itself is simple. There isn’t a lot of commentary, but instead there are pictures, figures and words that speak for themselves. In the first room there is an accounting of each province – how many Armenian villages, how many Armenians, how many Armenian churches and how many Armenian schools there were, accompanied by photos of the cities as they were in the early 1900s and pictures of prosperous-looking people. A semicircular hall then contains photographs and drawings of forced marches, mass graves, death, and starving people. Display cases contain books, official letters, eyewitness accounts and more photographs, detailing what was taking place. The final room contains before-and-after numbers, a large photograph of an orphanage in Syria, and proclamations from people recognizing the genocide (including the governors of many U.S. states, though not the Federal government). There is a grove of trees outside planted by officials from nations and other groups that recognize the genocide. Turkey does not admit to the genocide and many governments for political reasons do not recognize it; this is sad, but what is also sad is that Armenia is so insistent on the recognition being a precondition to any moving forward that it is unable to move forward. And of course what happened is sad. Everything about it is sad.

The memorial, per Lonely Planet, consists of a 40-meter high spire next to a circle of 12 basalt slabs leaning over to guard an eternal flame. The slabs represent the 12 lost provinces of Western Armenia, while the spire has a fine split in it dividing it into larger and smaller needles, the smaller one representing Western Armenia. Some surmise other layers of meanings – the 12 slabs huddle like refugees around a fire on a deportation march, and the spires might be a highly stylized monument of Mt. Ararat and its smaller peak, or blades of newborn grass.

Usually when I see memorials to such terrible things, I feel the need for ice cream afterwards to cheer up. Earlier in the week I had been thinking about Magnum bars, one of my favorite foods in Morocco. After walking back across the bridge into the busy part of the city, I went to a supermarket that is known for having a lot of Western goods (for example, peanut butter) and in the ice cream case, there was something that looked a lot like a Magnum bar! In Cyrillic, it said Magnate, but the packaging was similar. It wasn’t double chocolate or double caramel – it was vanilla, coated with chocolate and nuts – but it tasted Magnum-like (i.e. heavenly); I’ll be on the lookout for more.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Crossing Place

Before I got here I suspected that what unites Armenians is language and religion. After I got here I surmised that it was the language and the alphabet. And then I had an additional thought – it’s also the diaspora. Before I got here, a friend said that history is the history of the conquerors, because the conquerors get to write it. Well, the Armenians are an exception – they have been conquered several times and yet they endure, in part because of the strong diaspora. There are many more Armenians living outside of Armenia than in the country itself!

I just finished a book, recommended in the Peace Corps welcome book, that reinforced and detailed this. The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians, by Philip Marsden, chronicles the travels of the author to discover the essence of Armenia. He was inspired when, exploring Turkey, he came across a bone. When he asked what animal it might have come from, a shepherd told him it was “Ermeni” and tossed the bone to his dog. This led him to want to discover the spirit of the Armenians and how they have survived despite being at the “crossing place” of history, continually caught between warring religions and ideologies (some of this is from the book jacket).

He does his initial research in longtime Armenian communities in Venice and Jerusalem (I had no idea that the fourth quarter in Jerusalem is the Armenian quarter – but then again, I’d never thought about it). He goes from Cyprus to Lebanon and Syria, where many of the people forced out of Turkey in 1915 ended up (he also visits caves and other places where many of the forced marches ended in death, not in survival). As an aside, Gordon and Jeanne took their Peace Corps Response assignment here in part because they taught for two years in Aleppo, Syria, and got to know many Armenians there. The author then goes to Turkey, where there are still a few Armenians but also lots of historic structures designed by them – the Armenians were architects, merchants, mathematicians, astronomers, and other innovators.

He then goes on to Eastern Europe – Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova – where he encounters older Armenian communities; the Armenians were moved there as a result of the Turkish invasion in 1064 and also relocated there by the Persians. In these countries, there isn’t as much knowledge of tradition, and the last Armenians in some towns are dying out. He crosses parts of the Soviet Union as it is breaking up and at last ends up in Armenia itself. Most of the places he visits in Armenia are things I would like to see – Gyumri, the second-largest city, where there is still evidence of the 1988 earthquake (he was intrigued enough to go out of his way to the epicenter; I probably won’t), Lake Sevan and the world-heritage monasteries of the north, and then he ends his trip in what he thinks of as quintessential Armenia, the south – Goris, Kapan and Meghri, which at the time are under fire from Ajerbaijan.

He finds that the loss of the land is as palpable as the loss of the lives, and that there is a spirit that is represented by Ararat, a spirit that lives on. It was an interesting book and it gave me something to think about in light of my upcoming trip, to the homeland of a different people who are also mostly diaspora and who have also survived despite genocide. I’m not sure how much more I’ll read about Armenian history, but I’m glad I read this one.

P.S. I received two more issues of The New Yorker today (the second and third since I arrived) - happy to be reading those!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Motivation and Inspiration

As I was getting ready to leave Morocco, I wondered if I would ever be able to work in an office again – to get up to an alarm clock and work all day long, all week long, with never enough vacation time. I really appreciated the lack of structure, the simple life, the time for cooking from scratch and reading and writing, the time for tea. There was so much time there! My work in the Philippines gave me hope – I could go to an office every day (well, as long as I had the flexibility to work from home one or two days a week) as long as I had enough independence and was working on something I believed in. I’ve taken a step back here – it’s hard to get anything done at the Homeland Handicrafts office, with new input coming at us all the time and no time to process. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get anything done at the Peace Corps office either, with PCVs in and out and lots of noise. Now that I have my computer and an internet stick, I spent a day working at home this week and made a lot of progress! So maybe there’s hope. Or maybe I have to consider what others have been telling me even as I have been (unsuccessfully, upon both returns) looking for a full-time job – perhaps I need to start my own business and be more in charge of my own destiny. We’ll see.

I’ve also been somewhat sobered by the situation here – while I have met some Armenians who are creative and ambitious, I’ve met some development and NGO workers who seem jaded and defeated. Whether it’s the post-Soviet mentality or the Armenian personality or the government and business environment here, they seem to think there is little hope of getting anything accomplished – yet they plug away, though I am not entirely sure why. In fact, sometimes it seems the main business here in Yerevan is NGOs and aid organizations. So a cynic would say that they plug away because it’s a paycheck. I have been thinking that it would be rewarding to continue to serve (for pay) – Foreign Service, USAID, a development NGO. But I also have read about the pitfalls of foreign aid and I know that there can be agendas other than that of helping people, so I fear that I too could become disillusioned. And I know that in a non-profit organization I could end up with the same kind of crazy boss, office politics, long hours and all of the things I had in Corporate America and don’t want to have again. So I’ve been thinking some gloomy thoughts lately as I think about what is next.

And along came an inspirational event this week – something that reminded me that there are people out there dedicated to causes, believing that change can happen and that people matter. I was bumped from the guest list from the reception in honor of the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps, but someone mentioned my name to the Ambassador, a college classmate. She recognized it and said I could get in touch. I emailed her, and she invited me to a reception at the Embassy honoring a Woman of Courage; I went to it on Tuesday night. First of all, the Ambassador herself is impressive – her speech was impactful ( Yes, the picture is of me with her! More, the woman who was honored – sadly, posthumously – sounded amazing. As the head of Transparency International here, she fought corruption and tried to make a difference. There’s still a long way to go – here and in many other places – but with people like her, there’s a chance that the world can be a better place. I know that my time in Peace Corps is a drop in the bucket but I do feel that I made a small contribution to my community in Morocco and to the disaster response and poverty housing effort in the Philippines. Yes I can! Make a small contribution here too….

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ancient and Modern Civilizations

Yesterday Gordon, Jeanne and I went to Erebuni, the fortress and museum of Urartu, the civilization that was here in 782 BC; Erebuni evolved into the name Yerevan. The museum contains cuneiform tablets, old wine, beer and grain storage containers, old jewelry, tools, weapons and the like. The fortress/palace was built on a hill in the southern part of town, with views of Ararat, Aragats (the highest mountain in the Republic of Armenia), and all of Yerevan – looking very different now with huge stone abandoned Soviet factories and lots of buildings and roads vs. mud huts and one of the first civilizations with agriculture and animal husbandry. We had the place to ourselves and wandered among the ruins. It amazes me that people have always wanted to proclaim that they were here – from the cuneiform, which when translated talked about the ruler at the time, to the graffiti that modern non-rulers have added to the ancient frescoes.

We read about the gods that the Urartu worshipped, and it is pretty remarkable that so many cultures worshipped the same gods (sky, war and sun were the Big Three here) and have so many of the same shapes (swirls and zigzags, animals, fertility symbols). It struck me that monotheism was really quite a break from these ancient beliefs – really, a quantum leap in thinking. And it was an interesting day for it to have struck me – I had spent most of Saturday and then Sunday morning in the Peace Corps office on the internet, reading about the Japan earthquake/nuclear power plant and about North Africa and feeling sad at all of the troubles in the world, but affected even more by emails from friends struggling with health, job and other major life issues. I was thinking about the collective unconscious and how I could send positive energy out; how powerless I felt from so far away, and how I too will struggle when I get back – I hope to stay as healthy as I can as long as I can, and I hope to find my way (calling, love, location) without spending too much time in the doldrums that seemed to be in many of those emails.

Again, it’s good to focus on the positive. The day was cold but clear, and it was great to be on the top of that hill and to learn something new and experience something old. I spent a good chunk of time on Saturday working on Everywhere Exercise, and it felt good to make some progress there and to work on something cutting-edge. I also spent time on Saturday with Brian, with first lunch and then tea and then a little bit of the British Film Festival (we abandoned it about fifteen minutes in when there was a lot of yelling in another language and no sign of English subtitles) and webcasts of The Office (more fun than a movie about a son and a grandmother anyway) and then dinner. After Erebuni, I went to Gordon and Jeanne’s homestay – they live in a much less central neighborhood – that is, a real neighborhood – and had dinner with them and their host mother, who is an astrophysicist. More, I am happy to have heard from friends and to know that they’re out there and that, far away though I may be, I am here for them.

Today I met with the Cafesjian Museum Store buyer, bringing with me the best products in the Homeland Handicrafts stable. She didn’t like most of them but gave me good feedback as to why, and she agreed to take a couple of products forward to her director. I was hoping she would be interested in more – the craft fairs are good for the little impulse buys, and we need to find markets for the more expensive items; export is an obvious answer, but it would be helpful to find some outlets here. I hope to spend most of the rest of the week going through the many emails Tim has sent us in the past month and a half – given everything else going on, I just moved them into an email folder without addressing most of them – and organizing things on my computer, now that I have it back. On Sunday I leave for this year’s See The World trip, back April 1. But now that I have the computer back, I can post the entries that were on my hard drive when my computer broke!

Friday, March 11, 2011

More Culture, and a Moment of Peace

Last Saturday I took the Metro up to the last stop and walked onto the bridge over the Hrazdan Gorge. Along the hillside there's a lot of trash; once again I had to remind myself that in the U.S., the big anti-litter campaign happened in my lifetime. At least there's not a lot of trash in the city center. From the bridge, there's a good view of the city, encircled by a ridge. The circular street plan is really quite ingenious. Something else interesting about the city is that there are many businesses, restaurants and cafes below street level. In certain parts of Chicago, many entrances are below grade, because they raised the street level after the fire (if I remember my history correctly). Nobody has been able to tell me why there are so many things below grade here, but I'll keep asking. Peace Corps Armenia recently added Regional Managers to its staff - they will do a lot of the administrative work that the Program Managers were doing, so the Program Managers can focus more on the programming (Community and Business Development or TEFL). I met my new (Central) RM the other day. He told me that for his thesis he wrote about the transportation infrastructure of the Silk Road. We then looked at web sites about the Silk Road and about infrastructure - it took me back to the civil engineering days. The ancient Silk Road is actually not one route but a variety of them; Armenia is in a strategic position though, which explains its history of being conquered over and over from both the east and the west. The infrastructure exists for commerce now, but as long as the borders are closed - and they're closed on both sides - it's all just for the map, not for reality. I looked on Amazon for books about the Silk Road, and maybe I will order one - it'll be interesting to learn more. I have friends who were PCVs in the Philippines and have been traveling the Silk Road since they COSed - they are due in Armenia in a few weeks and I am looking forward to seeing them!

After the walk on the bridge, I had another Saturday work meeting, about another craft fair. This one is on April 2; Mother's Day here is April 7 - it is also the end of the Women's Month that started on March 8. PCVs are organizing the bulk of the fair and Homeland Handicrafts is just having a table - I think. I then met Gordon and Jeanne at the Matiros Sarian museum; he was a painter and is on the 20,000 dram bill. It's a house museum, containing many of his works and also his studio; his family still lives downstairs. He is known for vivid colors - I love the works that were exhibited. Early works show a lot of Middle Eastern scenes. He had a hard time during the height of the Soviet era but he kept painting. He was devoted to Armenia and many of his works are landscapes of Armenia. There are also some great portraits and still lifes. I recommend a visit to to have a look at the collection - it is beautiful. We then walked back to the Cascade through the Painter's Vernissage. Separate from the flea/craft market area, there are paintings for sale there on the weekends - displayed around a statue of Sarian. Brian bought a little painting one day. After visiting Bob and Linda's house on my way back from Morocco and seeing some Moroccan art on the wall, I wondered if I should have bought any art in Morocco. Maybe I will buy something here....

We climbed up the Cascade (using the interior escalator part of the way, not walking up all the stairs) and sat for a while, looking at Mt. Ararat looming over the city like a ghost. It really has a presence when you can see it - so close that you can touch it, yet forever unattainable, a reminder of the Western Armenia that was lost. Gazing at it, I felt at peace - and I realized that I haven't had many moments here that are that tranquil. I haven't been there for sunset yet, but I hope to catch more than a few of those - I hear the light is amazing.

There's a British film festival this week; free movies sponsored by the British Council here. On Tuesday I saw "Made in Dagenham," about women machinists at Ford Great Britain whose 1968 strike led to equal pay laws in many industrialized countries. Perfect movie for International Women's Day. I plan to go to a couple of the other movies, though they may be depressing (one is about the killing fields in Cambodia and one about a son and a grandmother who lost their father/son in Iraq). It seems that every English-speaker I've met so far in Yerevan was there. It really felt like an escape from life for a while, too - I used to see movies all the time but haven't seen that many since leaving for Morocco; a good movie can really draw you in. Music can draw you in as well. Last night I went to another concert at the Opera House - this one was a "Cine y Tango" concert featuring Astor Piazzolla music. One of these days I will catch up on my emails and post pictures, but in the meantime it is nice to take advantage of these cultural opportunities!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Holidays and Observances

Yesterday, on what other people call Mardi Gras, I saw a Lenten menu at Artbridge – so I asked Stepan, the Program Manager, how Lent was observed here. He said that people don’t eat any animal products except for honey – in other words, they’re vegan for 40 days until Easter. But there aren’t many vegans year-round (so I don’t think they think of it as being vegan). My host mother served chicken last night and eggs this morning (thereby answering, at least for this week, the question of which came first); I told her that if she observed Lent I would do it with her, and she said she doesn’t. I had told her when I arrived that I didn’t want a lot of meat, and we don’t have much anyway. This year, Armenian Apostolic Easter is the same day as the Easter of most of the people who celebrate it in America, April 24 – which is also Armenian Genocide Day. More on that when it happens.

Per Lonely Planet, the differences between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic and Orthodox faiths are subtle but ancient. The first differences arose in AD 451, when the Armenians were too busy fighting the Persians to attend the worldwide church’s Council of Chalcedon. The Armenians disagreed with the authorities in Constantinople over the nature of Christ. The Armenian Church sees the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ combined in one body (Monophysite), while the Greek Orthodox sees each nature as separate.

Why 40 days until Easter? It’s an important number in the Bible (Noah, Moses and more), and it’s reflected in many traditions here. The purification holiday of leaping over the fire (which, I now see in Lonely Planet, is called Trndez) occurs 40 days after Christmas (January 6 Christmas, that is). Households that plant lentil seeds at the start of Lent (is that why they’re called lentils? My electronic dictionary says it is from Old French lentille, from Latin lenticula, diminutive of lens, but what a coincidence!) lay red-painted eggs on the bed of green shoots on Easter Sunday (did they intend the pun about households laying eggs?). Ascension Day is 40 days after Easter; more on that when it gets closer; I should probably talk at some point about the New Year’s/Christmas traditions since those are the biggest holidays of the year, even though I won’t be here for the experience.

After a child is born, there is a big celebration – 40 days later. There’s also a big celebration when the child gets its first tooth; another volunteer told me about that one. When someone dies, there is a funeral and three days of mourning – and then another memorial 40 days later. One year later, there is a memorial at the cemetery and if the family can afford it, this is when the stone is – not sure what they call it here, but I would call it unveiled. My host mother has one for her sister this weekend; I may help with (or observe) the food preparation but I’ve decided that I’d prefer not to go to the cemetery.

Yesterday, March 8th, was also International Women’s Day. We used this as an occasion for Gender and Development activities in Morocco, but it’s really a big deal in the former Soviet Union. It was a day off (though my tutor, with nationalistic pride, wanted to work, so we had a lesson), a day of small gifts such as flowers and chocolate (and, of course, craft fair items); I gave both my host mother and my tutor chocolate, thinking that some might come my way, and it did! Similarly, I was told that for the anniversary of the death this weekend, chocolate is an appropriate gift – vodka and cognac are also acceptable, but I think candy is dandy.

And I see that in the U.S., Daylight Savings Time starts this weekend – I love springing forward. They may or may not have it in Armenia this year; it’s still being negotiated, and it may or may not depend on what Russia and Georgia do. I wonder if the World Clocks on the left-hand side of this blog will automatically update – and if that is how I will find out about it!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some Good News

The beginning of last week had more than its share of drama, but maybe I hit the low point of my service and it will be all uphill from here. I’ll talk about the drama some other time; better to focus on the positive!

All right, so I got bumped from the list for the Ambassador’s reception; I told Peace Corps staff I wanted to meet her at some point, and they told me they’d look into it (of course, I have ways to contact her on my own, but I thought it best to go through channels). They told me that she recognized my name immediately and that she was surprised I was here and that I could contact her directly. And I thought – of course she knows my name; in certain Princeton circles, I’m important. And it struck me how unimportant and anonymous I’ve felt – if not in Morocco, then certainly since I’ve been back. I don’t know how important it is to me to feel important, but it was nice to feel that way for a moment! I’ll email her this coming week.

Other things – I was relieved to find they do indeed have a Laughing Cow-type cheese, it’s just called something else. And I received a New Yorker magazine! I think it’s been two weeks already, and another has not come yet, but getting even one is a joy. I took the Metro a couple of times recently – there’s just one line, running southeast to northwest, but I was impressed! I have always been a subway fan. The stations were grand, the escalators perhaps a tad too fast, the trains frequent and clean and the system not crowded. And it costs only 50 drams a ride! I also finally had an occasion to use an ATM, and I have found that most of them have English as an option, which was nice to see.

And the reason to use the ATM? To pay cash for my repaired computer! Last week they had told me that Europe was out of stock on displays – so “about a week” had turned into a month and then into what seemed to be never. I came up with Plan B – buy an external hard drive and have my Macbook hard drive copied to it, and borrow Brian’s dying spare computer for the time being. That seemed only a temporary solution, though, so I initiated Plan C – asking a PCV whom I’d heard was going home for vacation to carry my computer, send it to Martha to get fixed, get it back from her, and bring it back to Armenia. He replied instantly and enthusiastically that he would do so. And the Universe, seeing Plan B in motion and Plan C get started, sent my display to the Apple affiliate store – they called the next day, I brought the computer over, and I picked it up that evening!

Most of last week was spent preparing for two craft fairs, one held yesterday (another weekend day worked… I am racking up the comp days!) and one today. International Women’s Day is tomorrow, and it’s a big gift-giving holiday. We sorted through the inventory, placed some rush orders for additional product, worked on a marketing piece to go on the tables, and tagged and priced just about everything we had. The fairs were well-attended; we sold a fair amount of product and made some good contacts. We were particularly pleased that a product line we had come up with – taking existing crocheted heart magnets, key chains, “anti-stress” squeezies and the like but making them in the colors of the Armenian flag – was extremely popular. I was also pleased that I could quote most of the prices in Armenian (I don’t have all the numbers memorized, but I have most of them now!) and answer a few other questions. I’m tired, though, and glad to have a holiday tomorrow! It really has been non-stop since I got here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Trip to the South - Part IV

One of the best aspects of the trip to the south was staying with PCVs at every stop. Peace Corps Armenia did a great job of telling the PCVs that we were coming and to be welcoming towards us - they have been extremely friendly (even if one of them said it's because they're all tired of each other's stories and eager for new blood). The PCVs who hosted us were great; it was nice to get a slice of volunteer life. I can't say that I'm tired of my home stay, but I went out to Artbridge for breakfast with a PCV earlier this week, and I felt as if I had gotten out of prison. Sometimes, "how was your day?" and "what time do you want breakfast?" is just more conversation than I want to have. And then I feel like bad company when I spend most of my time alone in my room or I stay out because I can't just go home, drop off my stuff and go back out. Fortunately, as I mentioned this to yet another PCV the other day, she said that everyone feels like that in home stay!

The PCVs here all live in furnished apartments - there are enough emigrants whose families hold onto their apartments that there are plenty of furnished apartments available. So most PCVs already have a bed, dresser, couch, table and chairs, and complete kitchen setup. The settling-in allowance that they get, then, is enough to get a little extra - maybe some bookshelves or (what I spent a chunk of mine on) an internet stick. Very different from the situation in Morocco, where most of us had empty apartments and then furnished them. The PCVs we visited all had water for only part of the day. I didn't bring soap because I didn't anticipate showering, but two of them had electric hot water heaters so shower I did! Peace Corps supplies the canister of cooking gas here - a remnant from the first post-Soviet groups, when gas was in extremely short supply. The first two places we visited were cold - in fact, Kapan was so cold that it reminded me of my winters in Morocco; the Goris PCV kept the heat high in her one heated room, and it was a welcome relief. Still, two of three nights I barely slept; I was glad to get back to my home stay bed, which is comfy and cozy (I also missed my white noise machine, with its sound of ocean surf).

Our first night, I brought out my three decks of cards in order to spread piffle across Armenia; we also played Bananagrams. So much of my Morocco experience included decks of cards - not that I can't have anyone over for cards while in home stay, but I haven't yet. It was a fun evening. The second and third nights we did a lot of talking - another thing about Peace Corps life that I haven't had that much of here. It was good to get some background about the NGOs and about Peace Corps Armenia - some issues are country-specific and some seem to be the same everywhere! Particularly memorable was the breakfast we cooked in Kapan - French toast and hash browns. Again, some of my great Peace Corps memories involve cooking with other PCVs! In all of these towns, there are several PCVs (a very different placement strategy here); the night we were in Goris, there was a birthday celebration for one of them so several PCVs from the area met at a restaurant for dinner.

In the Philippines, most of the time when I traveled I stayed in hotels; here, because it is less touristed than the other countries in which I've served, staying with a PCV may be the most attractive or perhaps even the only option. Many places of interest can be visited on day trips, so I don't know how often I will stay with people, but I've met a few people of interest now, and I may end up traveling to spend time with them. Again, we shall see! Already this week there are signs of spring; in fact, Armenians consider March 1 the first day of spring. I know it is still snowing outside of Yerevan, but here we have seen more sun this week than we have since I arrived. In midday it is too warm for my winter coat and boots. Already there seem to be more people out. Ararat is still mostly hidden, but it's clear enough here to look in the mountain's direction to see if you can see it. The scores of outdoor cafes are still closed; when they open, the city will be transformed. But it's definitely in the air.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Trip to the South - Part III

Two years ago, OSCE started Women's Resource Centers in the three cities that we visited; the centers have programs that are political, social and economic. These are funded for three years; next year the funding will run out and the centers are supposed to be self-sustaining. The PCVs in Goris and Kapan started when the WRCs started; Meghri did not get their paperwork done in time, so they did not get a PCV until this year. OSCE schedules meetings - in those cities, in Yerevan, halfway in between, or somewhere else - on a regular basis to review programming and to see if these NGOs are on the way to independence. The artisan projects are just one of the economic programs and are intended to be a way not only for the women who participate to make money but also for the NGO to make some money. But, I learned on the trip, the PCVs work more on overall NGO development than they do with the artisans. They don't have the time to nurture the artisans, and these artisans require nurturing. The intention of the trip was for Brian and me to introduce ourselves, assess their skills and motivation, and say that we would come back and work with them again. I worry, though, that Homeland Handicrafts is relying on the PCVs to be the point people at the local level, and that is not why they are there.

The Goris PCV was at Artbridge about eight months ago and she overheard Tim talk about his history in product development. One thing led to another and he agreed to help the women of the WRCs with product development and with finding markets for their products. Thus Homeland Handicrafts was born. With these WRCs and a separate additional group in Kapan as the core, Tim then reached out to PCVs in other regions (and/or they to him) and he found other talented artisans; in addition, some independent artisans found him.

Brian and I had prepared a little presentation with our backgrounds and experiences and then met the artisans, learned about them, looked at any products they brought to review, and answered questions. Homeland Handicrafts got off to a fast start with a holiday bazaar and then the airport order, so it created the expectation that more new products would be created and more orders forthcoming - and there may be some who believed that we would just buy everything they made and find a market for it. We didn't make any promises, but we did see some disappointment. We also saw the need for some systems and processes - for product review, materials ordering, product quality and consistency, inventory and payment. We did get some ideas for new products based on what they showed us, but that all has to be discussed - and I, for one, think we can't do anything else until we meet more potential customers and find out what they might want - that is, we need a strategy. So the job is shaping up to be somewhat different from what we expected - as I said in the last post, I'm not sure what that means.

What's interesting is that we talked to four completely different groups, perhaps reflective of the populations of the towns or maybe of the WRCs and how they did their outreach. The women in Meghri are all working women who do crafts as a hobby. There are women crocheting bags out of plastic bags (which would be Eco-friendly if they were recycled bags, but they are new, so there goes that marketing angle), and there are women who do "ribbon" embroidery. In Kapan, one set of women is all students at an art school; for Homeland Handicrafts they have made only products decorated with foam roses, but they have learned a variety of craft techniques in school. The other set are housewives who are all friends; they crochet. Actually in all of the places I think the artisans are friends or family members - that's how anyone gets hired or how anything gets done here. Goris was the only place where the women do their craft for livelihood - it is known as a town where almost all of the men work in Russia. Some men send money home, some come home to visit, some do neither. Crochet, knitting, embroidery, and there's also a male woodworker whose products are included in the line (and there are some products that combine wood and embroidery as a result). A lot of the products they recently worked on were on display at the Valentine's craft fair and will be available again this weekend; they're not all on the web site but they can be found on the Facebook Homeland Handicrafts group page. I'd like to see fewer seasonal/craft fair products and more "permanent collection," but that's another strategic discussion. One thing that we did come up with that everyone seems to like - a crocheted heart (one of the things that did sell at that fair), this time in the colors of the Armenian flag. I know I want one!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Trip to the South - Part II

We met again with the Meghri artisans in the morning while the OSCE people met with the officers of the NGO. The NGO women then provided lunch for everyone, and it was on to Kapan. Lonely Planet calls Kapan Armenia's version of Pittsburgh, a town built for the mining industry that surrounds it. The book says that Russians started mining there in earnest in the 1850s (really?) and that the city boomed during the Soviet period. The PCV there said a mine was run by the French and that Charles de Gaulle may have been born there and that his family definitely lived there. A 3210-meter mountain looms over the town, but it was too cloudy for us to see it. And it was very icy! Plus, the streets were dark - PCVs who live in the regions carry flashlights. Stairwells in the Soviet apartment blocks are also dark - really dark.

We had two meetings in the afternoon but only one the next morning, so we had time for a stroll. The NGO is near the main church, and we walked over to see it. Carved into the door were pomegranates and grapes - Armenia's finest. We walked in and there was a baptism taking place. Only a few family members were there - we had learned that there is a big party 40 days after a baby is born, so maybe baptism is a private ceremony. I also noticed that the few women who were there had their heads covered. I put the hood of my coat up, but we felt it was time to go - not before noticing that, as we had learned, Armenian churches have simple interiors. We walked on to the main square and down a side street and that was our exercise for the trip.

There's another town in the region that looks big enough to be a PCV site, but its mine doesn't meet international safety standards, so no PCV can live there. Instead, it was on to Goris, which is said to be one of the most beautiful towns in Armenia. It has stone houses (made with round stones and mortar, not blocks of volcanic stone) and volcanic pillars on the slopes outside of town. It also has a cave city on the other bank of the river, but we didn't see that. It is known for oghee, homemade mulberry vodka; I had tried some in a restaurant in Yerevan and one sip was enough for me. It is also a gateway to Karabagh; those of you who have been following all of my Peace Corps experiences will not be surprised to learn that we absolutely cannot go there. Goris was even icier than Kapan - it's amazing that more people don't fall and break bones here!

All of the places that we visited on this business trip might be interesting to see again for pleasure. There are caves and standing stones around Goris (though the bigger stones were on the way down, between Yerevan and Goris), history museums, some ruins, perhaps hiking. Near Goris is Tatev, with a jaw-dropping view of a monastery by a gorge. If I go back for business again, it would be nice to see some of the sights. Will I go back for business? Would I haul all the way down there for pleasure? I really don't know. And I'm not sure what it means that I don't know.

Thursday morning was the last of the meetings, and the ride back from Goris was only about four hours long, though we made a long stop so the OSCE program chair could buy roadside wine - near the area where the world's oldest winery (6000 years?) was found, they make wine and sell it in re-used Coca-Cola bottles. Brian stayed behind so that he could travel back via public transportation with some PCVs and learn how to do it - I took the free ride in the big white SUV, and had some interesting conversations about Armenia, the developing world, Europe and more.

I'll still write more about the meetings and about staying with the PCVs.... I'll add, though, that yesterday was Gorbachev's 80th birthday and they had a special about him on TV. I asked my host mother if she liked him, and she said that he was good for democracy (she even used the phrase "tear down this wall") but not good for Armenians because he didn't do anything about Karabakh. The other day in the Peace Cops office, I was talking with the Safety and Security Coordinator and I asked him if he ever dreamed that in his lifetime the Soviet Union would break up. He said, "of course not; we were the most powerful country in the world!"

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trip to the South - Part I

They say Armenia is a country of microclimates, and I feel as if I saw a dozen or more on the way south. Right outside of Yerevan, the terrain is flat and barren, though maybe it looks more agricultural in the spring. Orchards and fish farms appear, then vineyards and the occasional town, and then the mountains. Sometimes they are covered with snow; then you round a bend and there's no snow, and then around another bend there is deep snow, and sometimes you are in the clouds. Sometimes there are evergreen trees on the slopes, and then no trees, and then deciduous trees. Up we went, and down, and up, and down, through two or three distinct ranges. Along the Silk Road we traveled, more or less the only road between the capital and the south; it's amazing to think of the caravans that traveled the same route through the centuries. Now the caravans are comprised of trucks with Iranian license plates. And now that I see the twisty mountain roads that they travel, I understand why everything in Armenia is so expensive. The highest pass we conquered, in deep snow, was over 2500 meters.

We stopped for coffee near the turnoff to Armenia's stone henge - where we were told that there is evidence that Armenians built England's Stonehenge. All right, if you say so. There was no time to explore, nor would we have seen much given the snow - this trip convinced me that there's little point in doing any pleasure trips before the spring, and that spring will come to Yerevan way before it comes to much of the rest of the country. There are still several museums in Yerevan to see, and several emails to respond to, and things to read and write - not to mention lots of work! - so I have plenty to do.

We were in a big, white OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) SUV, and for some of the eight-hour drive to Meghri we talked, and sometimes I read, and sometimes we listened to the radio. There are some recordings I want to find to bring home - the duduk is the traditional flute here and it makes beautiful music (I never saw "Gladiator," but if you have, the soundtrack is duduk music); Charles Aznavour is a French-Armenian crooner who I can now recognize in just a few notes (Cher is of Armenian descent as well, but I haven't heard her here). The Russo-pop can be fun too.

The south is just about the only part of the country where you can't make it there and back to Yerevan in one day. Is the western part of Maryland like that? You do go through mountains to get there.... I guess the Eastern Shore is hard to get to though, so the analogy goes only so far. We arrived in Meghri and had a few minutes to admire the mountains in the background before our meeting started. I was once told that the mountains make up for the sea; I am not sure I agree with that, but I did enjoy my two years in the Middle Atlas. And the PCVs whose sites are this far south in Armenia are indeed surrounded by beauty.

And they are close to Iran. I upset friends and family when I posted on Facebook that I was headed for the Iranian border. No intention or attempt to cross or hike, and no time anyway! Because the PCV in Meghri had been med-evac'ed to the U.S., a PCV in the border town agreed to host us overnight. We could see Iran through the fence and across the river, and - though frowned upon - I took a picture of the road sign. A fellow PCV wrote to me privately that he enjoyed seeing the comments telling me that it was dangerous to be that close to Iran, when in fact the real danger was from the road conditions. The OSCE program chair told me that she was advised not to schedule any meetings in the winter, but she felt that if she didn't, it would give the NGOs an excuse not to do anything all winter. Maybe it is just as well she told me this on the way back, after we had crossed through the snow and clouds and fog.